The results of the elections to the European Parliament which took place across the EU’s 28 member states last week very much as predicted – at least in the ‘old’ pre-2004 member states: driven by frustration with austerity, economic stagnation, diminished opportunities and a yawning sense of disconnect with established parties and politicians, a variety of outsider parties made sweeping gains and unignorably stamped themselves on the electoral map.
In Northern Europe, where socio-economic malaise and disconnect were often refracted through the politics of anti-immigration, this tended to benefit right wing, Eurosceptic parties. In Southern Europe anti-austerity parties of the radical left such as Greece’s Syriza or Podemos in Spain gained most.
The most spectacular gains were been made by parties of varying political complexions which had a long-time presence on at the political margins: UKIP in the UK, the Front National in France, Sinn Féin in Ireland. Whatever their coloration, scale of their political success underlines the potential fragility of mainstream parties in Western Europe even in states with well-established party systems previously considered immune to populist surges such as Spain or the UK.
Many commentators have lumped in the newer EU member states of Central and Eastern with the unfolding (if exaggerated) story of a populist backlash in the EU’s West European heartlands. Anticipating the strong showing of the radical right in Denmark, Holland and Austria The Observer’s Julian Coman, for example, causally assured readers that ‘across much of eastern Europe, it is a similar story’
But, in fact, it was not. Read More…
The customers in this Westminster café seem a strange mix of suited civil servants and builders in boots and hi-vis. But it’s worth the early start and the cup of industrial strength tea to beat a path back to the European Council for Foreign Affairs, who this week are putting on two-handed discussion on Legitimacy: Democracy versus Technocracy.
Despite the abstraction of the title, the event focuses on the experience of the two countries which have borne the brunt of the current crisis and catalysed the political weaknesses in the Eurozone– Greece and Ireland. Looking at experiences and perspectives of small countries is (I think quite rightly) a particular concern of the ECFR, although Greece is admittedly not exactly under the radar right now.
Both speakers, Brigid Laffan of UCD and Loukas Tsoukalis of the ELIAMEP thinktank sensibly avoided addressing the populism vs. technocracy dichotomy of the title – one of ECFR’s favourite motifs, but too simple and stylised – and instead stressed the way in which the new politics of low-growth and hard times locked in by the Eurocrisis (especially grim in Greece despite success in budget-cutting and squeezing living standards to effect ‘internal devaluation’) are reshuffling the party political deck. Populist ‘challenger parties’ such as the True Finns and (possibly – notes teas-stained and illegible here) Syriza in Greece were picking up support and making electoral breakthroughs in both creditor and debtor states.
The net result was a new ‘politics of constrained choice’ reflected the oft-noted (and often prosaic seeming) fact that EU is a system of multilevel governance: now see national governments trying (and failing) to be accountable to both their own domestic electorates and EU partner governments. This meant not the abolition of any scope for national policy responses – there was some political wiggle room and EU members had quite different capacities for adaptability and reform – but its constriction.
However, elections so far (as in Ireland) had seen frustrated voters turn to main opposition parties and, to a lesser extent, to previously marginalised but coalitionable substitutes for them (Syriza) the next cycles of elections would put this to the test. The unanswered question was much social pain and dislocation, economic contraction and what level of unemployment – especially youth unemployment – would it take to trigger an explosive political crisis.
For Ireland the answer would seem to be quite a lot. Irish society, said aid Prof Laffan, was a characterised by pragmatism, ideological moderation and a certain fatalistic passivity – there had been little in the way of Southern Europe contentious politics and anti-austerity protest – partly reflecting its historical experience, partly its more global and transatlantic, outlook. With the exception of the last point, it sounded oddly, but familiarly, East European. In Greece, where there was more anger, protest and populism, there was very little nationalistic, euroscepticm (or Euro-scepticism) – notwithstanding the media attention lavished on Golden Dawn – with few people advocating Grexit. However, the main political surprises, both speakers agreed, were still to come.
But what of Populism versus Technocracy? ‘Challenger parties’ was another term for populism – understood here to mean a loose amalgam of demgagogic, impossibilist demands, rather than in the more precise academic sense – although the speakers tended, I think rightly, to see such parties as an unknown threat yet to come, rather than recycling the hackneyed and predictable line that the rise of the far-right is already upon is. But where was the technocracy?
The answer was partly in the presence of technocrats and technocratic governments in Greece and Italy, but more in the technocratic nature of the unelected European institutions now moving to centre-stage: the European Central Bank (‘a pivotal’ institution) and the European Commission, which noted the new fiscal pacts and oversight arrangements were empowering as never before (although I seem to remember reading other commentaries arguing that the crisis had, in fact, disempowered the Commission and robbed it of the political initiative it once possessed).
I wasn’t sure whether such how fully European level institutions really are or whether the problem with them is the fact that they are technocratic or the fact that they are European. Leaving this aside, however, the option of a top-down technocratic solution to the crisis centring around such institutions, it was argued, risked further de-legitimation of the EU – there was a need to re-build EU institutions into new frameworks of accountability perhaps by enhancing roles of national parliaments with European Parliament also having a potential role despite its failure to become a fully-fledged (and legitimate) European-wide legislature.
Rather interestingly – although ominously – the concept of democracy evoked was as accountability without representation similar to the one Mark Leonard of the ECFR claimed to detect emerging in China. But unfortunately, at national level there are democratic structures with the reverse profile: representation without (clear lines of) accountability
It’s hard to see this staving off the rise of see off populist challengers. In the absence of growth the [Euro] system lacks the political and economic resources to see them off as it once did to Communist Parties after 1945. The whole, complex multi-level economic and political system of the EU, it seems is set up as a giant anti-politics machine, a production line for populist challengers parties of all shades and models that is ready to roll.
And in a sense this is the one bright spot to the pessimism-laden analysis that isthe stock in trade of thinktanks these days: the uncertainty around the exact form that such new forms will take. While the ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’ line from Yeats’s The Second Coming – surely one of the all time favourite lines for of the literate political scientist to quote – may indeed fit our current sense of fear and foreboding we do not yet know the identity of the rough beast politicall slouching towards Bethlehem – or should that be Brussels? – to be born